Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Dinesen returned from Africa to Denmark in 1931. A significant historical circumstance during her lifetime was the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany during World War II. Although Denmark maintained an official policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the government capitulated to German occupation in 1940. After a show of organized resistance by the people of Denmark against Nazi occupation, the Germans took over control of the nation’s government and much of its military forces. The resistance movement was organized as the Danish Freedom Council in 1943, and in 1945, the Germans surrendered to defeat by the Allies.

Dinesen lived in the region that is now Kenya from 1914–1931 as the owner and manager of a coffee plantation. The history of this region during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries is characterized by European colonization and exploitation of members of the tribes native to the area, such as the Massai and the Kikuyu. Britain, Germany, and France all had a hand in colonizing the area. The Imperial British East Africa Company had a dominating hand in these efforts beginning in the 1880s. In 1894, the British government declared the area the East Africa Protectorate. In the 1890s, British military forces were employed to quell resistance to European rule by African tribes. A railway, built between 1895 and 1903 was a key factor in encouraging European settlement and cultivation of the East Africa Protectorate in the early 1900s. During this time, members of the native African tribes were restricted to reservations and...

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most notable stylistic device used in this story is the Norwegian folklore motif of shape-shifting. According to a common old belief, some people had the power to change their physical appearance into that of such animals as bears, wolves, or, as in the case of Sunniva, birds. Sunniva’s capacity for shape-shifting is crucial to the story; it gives the text its aura of mystery, presents a justification for her intervention into Simon’s life at Bodø, and links the text’s beginning to its end, thus giving the reader a sense of having encountered a highly structured whole.

The shape-shifting motif also provides a number of specific stylistic devices that Dinesen uses in order to tie the figure of the peregrine falcon to the character Sunniva. For example, both the falcon and Sunniva have yellow eyes. Also, when Sunniva moves her head, it jerks like that of a bird of prey. She also uses the phrase “little bird” as a term of endearment when speaking to Simon, thus suggesting that she is both a falcon and a person.

The shape-shifting motif also gives the story an air of mystery and unreality that is necessary for readers seriously to entertain the notion of a great matriarchal conspiracy of existence. Within a patriarchal culture, such an idea runs counter to received understanding; if it were presented in a more realistic story, it would be summarily dismissed by most readers. The fantasy aspects of the shape-shifting motif allow the author to present the subversive notion of a matriarchal conspiracy so that it may at least be considered, if not accepted as possible.

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

The Fairy Tale
This story is written in the form of a fairy tale or fable. The supernatural element is the most salient feature that renders it a fairy tale; Sunniva, the old woman who can change herself into a falcon is some type of witch, a common character in fairy tales. The plot structure is also in the style of a fairy tale. Italo Calvino, who is best known for his collection, Italian Folktales (1956), has pointed out the element of ‘‘hard logic’’ and repetition by which many folktales, or fairy tales, are structured. In this story, Simon saves the falcon by untangling its feet from the mast ropes upon which it struggles; it scratches his hand and draws blood. He then hits the falcon over the head to subdue it while he climbs down from the mast. When Simon meets Sunniva, the falcon who is now in the form of an old woman, she returns the favor with a logical precision that renders her actions absurd. As Simon saved the life of the falcon/Sunniva, so Sunniva saves his life by protecting him from capture for the murder of Ivan. As Simon’s hand was cut by the falcon’s talon, so Sunniva cuts her own hand with his knife. Finally, as Simon hit the falcon over the head, so Sunniva smacks his face in reciprocation. As he is saying goodbye to her, she tells him, ‘‘‘We do not forget ... And you, you knocked me on the head there, high up in the mast. I shall give you a blow back.’ With that she smacked him on the ear as hard as she...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Burstein, Janet Handler, ‘‘Two Locked Caskets: Selfhood and ‘Otherness’ in the Work of Isak Dinesen,’’ in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 20, 1978, pp. 615–632.

Calvino, Italo, ‘‘On ‘Quickness’ in Narrative,’’ in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press, 1988.

Langbaum, Robert, The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art, Chatto & Windus, 1964, p. 156.

Pelensky, Olga Anastasia, ed., Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, Ohio University Press, 1993, pp. xiii, xiv, xv, xvi.

Scholtz, Antonine M. L. Marquart, ‘‘Africa and Creative Fantasy: Archetypes in Three of Isak...

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Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

Early Twentieth Century: From 1894–1960, the region of Africa in which Dinesen lived for over fifteen years is a protectorate of the United Kingdom called the East Africa Protectorate.

Late Twentieth Century: In 1960, the East Africa Protectorate achieves self-rule and national independence and is renamed the Republic of Kenya.

World War II: Dinesen’s native country of Denmark is occupied by German forces (1940–1945).

Post–World War II: Upon the German defeat by the Allies in 1945, Denmark regains self-rule.

Early Twentieth Century: The vast coffee plantations of the East Africa Protectorate, like those owned and managed by Dinesen, are owned by Europeans who force the Africans onto reservations and exploit their labor.

Late Twentieth Century: Land used for coffee plantations is gradually ceded to African people, as a result of pressures to further the rights of African people in their native regions.

Early Twentieth Century: The phenomenon of book clubs, begun in the nineteenth century, leads to the formation of the popular Book-of-the-Month Club in the United States in 1926. A total of five of Dinesen’s books are included in Book-of-the-Month Club lists.

Late Twentieth Century: Beginning in the 1950s, the availability of cheap paperback editions of many books results in a decline in popularity of book clubs.

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Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Many of Dinesen’s stories contain elements of Gothic literature, particularly elements of the supernatural. Dinesen’s stories are also frequently written in a style resembling a fairy tale. What elements of a story make it Gothic? What elements of a story make it a fairy tale? Can you write a short story either in the Gothic style or in the style of a fairy tale—or both?

Contemporary critics have faulted Dinesen for her romanticized, Eurocentric depictions of Africa and African people. Learn more about the history of Kenya, where Dinesen owned and managed a coffee plantation for over fifteen years, in the twentieth century. What were the conditions under which the African people were forced to accommodate the European presence in Africa?

See a film adapted from Dinesen’s writings. This could include The Immortal Story (1969); Out of Africa (1985); or Babette’s Feast (1987). In what ways are the central themes and stylistic elements of Dinesen’s writing adapted to the visual medium of film?

Dinesen’s writing is often said to have been influenced by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Who was Kierkegaard and what was his contribution to modern philosophy? What are some of the central tenets of his philosophy?

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Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

The audiotape Out of Africa features Wanda Caddon reading from Dinesen’s memoirs. It was recorded by Books on Tape in 1983.

The audiotape An Isak Dinesen Feast features excerpts from Dinesen’s memoirs and several of her stories read by the author. It was recorded by Audio Partners in 1985.

The audiotape Isak Dinesen Herself Telling Two Stories features the stories ‘‘The King’s Letter,’’ and ‘‘The Wine of the Tetrach.’’ It was released by Audio Partners in 1988.

The audiotape Isak Dinesen features biographical information on Dinesen, written and read by Judith Thurman. It was recorded by Recorded Books in 1997.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Winter’s Tales (1941) is Isak Dinesen’s second collection of short stories. It includes ‘‘The Sailor-Boy’s Tale.’’

Seven Gothic Tales (1934) is Dinesen’s first collection of short stories. It includes ‘‘The Deluge at Norderney’’; ‘‘The Old Chevalier’’; ‘‘The Monkey’’; ‘‘The Roads Round Pisa’’; ‘‘The Supper at Elsinore’’; ‘‘The Dreamers’’; and ‘‘The Poet.’’

Out of Africa (1952) is Dinesen’s nonfiction memoir of her years spent managing a coffee plantation in Kenya between 1914 and 1931.

Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen: The Work and the Life (1988) by Aage Henriksen is a biography of Dinesen, which...

(The entire section is 217 words.)